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Consumption trumps conservation

Alan Braunholtz

The radio mentioned that 30 inches of ran fell on Southern California this winter instead of the usual 16. The Los Angeles River, normally the dry culvert seen in movie car chases, is now an overflowing large ditch of water speeding along. Ever wonder where? My guess is that the civil engineers focused on one thing only, getting that water out of there and into the sea.What a waste! Come summer they’ll all be looking elsewhere for the water they want. Surely it can’t be that hard to come up with a system to save the water that falls as rain instead of just flushing it away. Of course, if you’ve built on all the flood plains and other suitable storage sites and know that the government will subsidize and provide the water for your developments, why bother?Development always seems to win where land use is concerned. Any land left in an unused state is seen as a waste. Consumptive use is king of political thought, or 51 percent of it, unfortunately.The continuing spat over recreational in-channel diversion rights (RCIDs) illustrates this rather well. A few years back Senate Bill 216 effectively gave water rights to in-stream flows if they had a recreational use. White water kayak parks are the most obvious in-stream use, with man-made structures creating play spots. The makers of these parks could file for a right to keep that water there for recreational enjoyment.Fish cheered and blew bubbles, but developers grumbled and then plotted. What use was a river full of water if you couldn’t siphon it off? Worse, when “owned'” by communities for the common good, it made buying those rights much harder and smacked of socialism and other evil things.Now along comes SB 62 putting all sorts of constraints on present and future RCIDs. Originally this bill made all RCIDs subordinate to later but “proper” water use, i.e. consumptive use. A bit of unwanted publicity and it’s been tweaked, but the underlying mantra remains: “Must protect right to remove all water from rivers for future development.”Quotes are often revealing. State Sen. Jack Taylor regards recreational users as having a hidden agenda: “They want control of the stream above.” It’s not that hidden, really, as every senior water right gets control of the stream above. What’s so scary about the “agenda” of a babbling brook of clear water that people are daring to use for fun? When did the moral majority get so puritanically boring? It’s not even a money issue, as selling fun is very profitable. Water sports provide the original trickle-down economy.Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone is quoted in the Vail Daily as “supporting recreational water use,” but (a big one) he also “supports water for people to drink.” Now I’m looking forward to all the soon-to-be-enacted statewide water efficiency and conservation measures to make sure there’s enough water for people to drink. We waste an awful lot of water compared to what we drink. Eagle River Water and Sanitation District’s progressive rates are a great idea, though the wasteful continually harp on about unjust restrictions on their lifestyle. Strange maybe, but I regard a dried-up stream as a restriction on mine.Similar use-it-or-lose-it ideologies are being applied to all our lands. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be drilled and damaged soon. To avoid an honest debate on the pros and cons and the chance of a filibuster, the projected revenues are being included in the budget. If the budget passes, then it’s a done deal. That’s weird, since there won’t be any revenue for a long time. But that’s politics for you.It’s not just ANWR. Energy extraction, logging, mining are being pushed on all our public lands. The buzz phrase for this is “energy independence” with whispers of the Middle East and 9/11. This would be more palatable if accompanied by energy conservation and efficiency measures. These could provide an immediate impact on the energy we need. Without support for either of these, the buzz phrase is an excuse, not the real reason.Hikers, hunters and fishermen are all finding themselves on the wrong side of this consumptive use resurgence on our public lands. Expect the Interior Department to maintain the “open for business” sign despite the departure of timber and energy industry lobbyist Stephen Griles as deputy secretary. The department’s own inspector general called Griles’ industry first behavior an “institutionalized failure,” though I’m guessing the White House thought it was just fine.It would be refreshing if we could have an honest debate in public arenas about land-use issues. If you think water in a stream is a waste, say so, defend your view and see how the public votes. Likewise with ANWR and other wild lands versus energy and timber interests and our needs. We are a consumptive society with incompatible views on economic growth, quality of life and land use. Without this debate we’ll never know what a stream or housing development is worth to us and how much we would give up.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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